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While We Were Watching Netflix, the EPA Stopped Doing Its Job

Words by Leon Kaye
EPA

Yes, all of us are preoccupied with the novel coronavirus pandemic and its devastating impacts on society and the economy. But there are still challenges here in the U.S. and abroad that deserve attention, including environmental justice and environmental degradation that affect the health of both people and the planet. On that point, many are livid over the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decision last week to suspend enforcement of a range of environmental legal obligations due to the COVID-19 crisis.

"This temporary policy is designed to provide enforcement discretion under the current, extraordinary conditions, while ensuring facility operations continue to protect human health and the environment,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a public statement.

Critics of the EPA’s announcement, however, have described the agency as shirking its overriding responsibility and said it has, in effect, slammed the brakes on the enforcement of U.S. environmental laws.

“This EPA statement is essentially a nationwide waiver of environmental rules for the indefinite future,” Cynthia Giles, a former head of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement, explained to the political blog The Hill. “It tells companies across the country that they will not face enforcement even if they emit unlawful air and water pollution in violation of environmental laws, so long as they claim that those failures are in some way 'caused' by the virus pandemic. And it allows them an out on monitoring too, so we may never know how bad the violating pollution was.”

The American Petroleum Institute (API) has urged the White House to direct several federal government agencies to curtail temporarily certain “non-essential compliance obligations,” arguing that the oil and gas sector is at risk of “limited personnel capacity” due to the pandemic. The trade group has warned its members of the potential threats this pandemic imposes on the energy sector. The U.S. federal government’s $2 trillion stimulus bill excludes energy and gas companies after a successful push from environmental groups.

Give credit to the API for grasping what it takes to get the White House’s ear. The letter’s sycophantic tone contrasts sharply with the blunt directness that some U.S. state governors have taken when describing the Donald Trump administration’s response to this crisis – and the president, naturally, has clapped back in kind.

One blogger for the API made the point that the trade group was doing federal officials a favor with its call for temporary noncompliance, stating the request would:

“…Help protect federal officials, who otherwise would be traveling to worksites to perform tasks such as collecting signatures on forms. Temporarily pausing a relatively small number of provisions will help keep them and industry employees safe while both comply with federal and state virus orders.”

Critics of the EPA and U.S. energy industry were quick with their reactions. “This EPA decision exploits a public health crisis to further advance a dangerous political agenda that is stripping away the very environmental protections that science suggests are needed to combat climate change which may have a role in generating future pandemics,” Thomas Oppel of the American Sustainable Business Council wrote in an emailed statement to TriplePundit.

Over the years, many scientists and global health agencies have warned that one of climate change’s long-term impacts is a higher risk of pandemics. So while the current conventional wisdom is that climate change should move to the back burner while the world fights the surge in coronavirus cases, there’s certainly a case for not losing sight of the global climate change challenge.

The reality, however, is that the huge disruption in many citizens’ daily lives has meant a focus on ensuring we become accustomed to working and studying from home. Video chatting with friends and live streaming entertainment offer the few respites from what is now for many of us a mundane yet frustrating day-to-day existence. But this massive disruption in how we now live also means we are at risk of government taking action, or inaction, that isn’t in the best interest of the citizens it serves.

So now, not only do we need business to take the reins on ensuring citizens become proactive in flattening the curve, but we also need leaders to keep their eye on the ball and make sure the federal government does not use this pandemic as a an excuse to evade other responsibilities.

Image credit: Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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